The tax status of so-called “carried interests,” held by private equity fund sponsors (and benefitting, in particular, the individual managers of those sponsors) is the subject of this post. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit holding that a private equity fund was engaged in a trade or business for purposes of the withdrawal liability provisions of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) has caused considerable comment on the issue of whether a private equity fund might also be held to be in a trade or business (and not just a passive investor) for purposes of capital gains tax treatment on the sale of its portfolio companies. Proposed federal income tax legislation, beginning in 2007 and continuing into 2013, also has raised concern as to the status of capital gains tax treatment for holders of carried interests. The following post addresses both of these developments.
Posts Tagged ‘Pension funds’
In our paper, Managerial Risk Taking Incentives and Corporate Pension Policy, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we examine whether the compensation incentives of top management affect the extent of risk shifting versus risk management behavior in pension plans.
The employee beneficiaries of a firm’s defined benefit pension plan hold claims on the firm similar to those held by the firm’s debtholders. Beneficiaries are entitled to receive a fixed stream of cash flows starting at retirement. The firm sponsoring the plan is required to set aside assets in a trust to fund these obligations, but if the sponsor goes bankrupt with insufficient assets to fund pension obligations, beneficiaries are bound to accept whatever reduced payouts can be made with the assets secured for the plan.
The increase in institutional ownership of corporate stock has led to questions about the role of financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. This post focuses on the issues associated with the so-called “separation of ownership from ownership,” arising from the growth of three types of institutional investors, pensions, mutual funds, and hedge funds.
To a great extent, individuals no longer buy and hold shares directly in a corporation. Instead, they invest, or become invested, in any variety of institutions, and those institutions, whether directly or through the services of one or more investment advisers, then invest in the shares of America’s corporations. This lengthening of the investment chain, or “intermediation” between individual investor and the corporation, translates into additional agency costs for the individual investor and the system, as control over investment decisions becomes increasingly distanced from those who bear the economic benefits and risks of owners as principals. The rapid growth in intermediated investments has led to concerns about the consequences of intermediation and the role of institutional investors and other financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. These concerns are particularly relevant against a background of increasing demands for shareholder engagement and involvement in the governance of America’s corporations.
Investors are looking at risks differently than in the past. The financial crisis that affected capital markets across the globe demonstrated that companies—and even whole economies—can be rocked to their core when the connections between lending practices, securitization programs, and capital and funding levels are not clearly understood and monitored.
Investors today are expecting that those who manage the businesses that rely on their capital will exercise greater care over this expanded concept of “risk.” Of course, investors also seek steady returns, so risks cannot be eliminated. But this is when disclosure—information that provides necessary nourishment to an efficient market—becomes so important.
In December 2012, we published an Alert after a Federal District Court concluded that: (1) a private equity fund was not a “trade or business” for purposes of determining whether the fund could be liable under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) for the pension obligations of one of its portfolio companies and (2) consequently, the private equity fund could not be liable for its portfolio company’s pension obligations under Title IV of ERISA, even if the fund and the portfolio company were part of the same “controlled group.” Our December Alert, which contains background on the issue and a summary of the state of the law through December 2012, may be found here. This post is to advise that the First Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the 2012 Federal District Court opinion.
In Sun Capital Partners III LP v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Indus. Pension Fund (No. 12-2312, July 24, 2013), the First Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that: (a) a private equity fund can be a “trade or business” for purposes of determining “controlled group” joint and several liability under ERISA and (b) as a result, the private equity fund could be held liable for the pension obligations of its portfolio company under Title IV of ERISA, if certain other tests are satisfied. Under ERISA, a “trade or business” within a “controlled group” can be liable for the ERISA Title IV pension obligations (including withdrawal liability for union multiemployer plans) of any other member of the controlled group. This “controlled group” liability represents one of the few situations in which one entity’s liability can be imposed upon another simply because the entities are united by common ownership, but in order for such joint and several liability to be imposed, two tests must be satisfied: (1) the entity on which such liability is to be imposed must be a “trade or business” and (2) a “controlled group” relationship must exist among such entity and the pension plan sponsor or the contributing employer.
I. Overview of the First Half of 2013
The first six months of 2013 represented a time of transition for the SEC’s enforcement program, with a new Chairman and new Co-Directors for the Division of Enforcement at the helm. It is too soon to predict exactly how they may reshape the program—in contrast with this period four years ago, when Chairman Mary Schapiro and Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami assumed their positions in the wake of Madoff and the financial crisis and with a mandate for major reform, the new team is moving more incrementally. However, there can be little doubt that, when it comes to enforcement, the new leadership will be striking an aggressive tone. For the first time in the Commission’s history, the Chairman and the Enforcement Division leadership are all former criminal prosecutors. As Chair Mary Jo White recently emphasized: “The SEC is a law-enforcement agency. You have to be tough. You have to try to send as strong a message as you can, across as broad a swath of the market as you regulate.”
As society increasingly faces governance challenges at all levels, there is a growing recognition of the need to take a longer term and more systemic view. Given the overwhelming incentives for myopic leadership (and action), our common law system—where courts respond to specific fact situations—may play a critical role. One avenue is likely through the concept of fiduciary duty—the legal obligation to act in the best interests of others.
The Supreme Court of Canada has been at the leading edge in developing a coherent view of the nature of fiduciary relationships and their consequences (largely through its recognition of a new class of fiduciary relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples). The logic has permeated more broadly, with the Court focusing on the high degree of specialization and interdependence in society—where we increasingly rely on the services and expertise of strangers. This rise of “fiduciary society” is a classic non-zero-sum game, where we can all benefit but, if trust is eroded, the game fails (and everyone loses). Hence it is that values of trust and loyalty, shaped by “reasonable expectations”, have come to form the basis for the court’s broad standards.
Buyers and sellers in typical leveraged buyouts of subsidiaries and divisions have long recognized that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) could perceive its own interests as threatened in the transaction and, consequently, might choose to interfere with the parties’ bargain. This concern has to date been viewed as largely theoretical, as the PBGC typically either does not appear in a transaction at all, or, if it does appear, extracts relatively modest protections from the parties. Two recent developments suggest that the PBGC intends to become more active in buyout transactions:
- In April, the PBGC initiated proceedings to terminate a pension plan in connection with Compagnie de Saint-Gobain’s sale of its US metal and glass containers business to Ardagh Group. Initiation of a plan termination is typically viewed as an attempt to scuttle a transaction.
- In a recent interview, a senior PBGC official announced that the PBGC intends to become more aggressive in scrutinizing future buyout transactions and to allocate more of its resources in this area.
Transactional class and derivative actions have long been controversial in both the popular and the academic literatures. Some commentators have argued that every deal faces litigation, that the overwhelming majority of such cases are frivolous, that the only people who benefit from them are the lawyers, and that the costs of these suits outweigh their benefits to shareholders. Others have taken the opposite view, that the litigation costs are overblown and that shareholders benefit from such suits. Yet, the debate over this litigation has so far neglected to consider a change in legal technology, adopted in Delaware a decade ago, favoring selection of institutional investors as lead plaintiffs. My article, “Private Policing of Mergers and Acquisitions: An Empirical Assessment of Institutional Lead Plaintiffs in Transactional Class and Derivative Actions,” fills the gap, offering new insights into the utility of mergers and acquisitions litigation. The most significant findings in the paper are that public pension funds and labor union funds have become the dominant institutional players in these cases, and that public pension fund lead plaintiffs correlate with the outcomes of most interest to shareholders: an increase from the offer to the final price, and lower attorneys’ fees.
Recently issued rules by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will notably change the way state and local governments account for and report the results of their defined benefit pension plans. Some plans may see their reported funded percentages fall under the new requirements. A plan’s funded status will now be reflected on the balance sheet, increasing transparency as well as the focus on measures that plan sponsors are taking to address these shortfalls. Funded status and pension expense measures are also likely to be more volatile under the revised reporting standards.
While the new GASB rules change some important aspects of public DB plan reporting, they do not change others. In particular, they neither mandate use of a lower discount rate for calculating liabilities nor higher contribution requirements. These are changes to accounting and financial reporting, not economics. Nonetheless, they do represent a notable change to the calculation and reporting of various pension-related metrics.
Some public DB plan sponsors are already facing significant challenges, such as relatively low funded levels. In addition, given budgetary challenges, some state and local governments do not have the flexibility to increase contributions at this time. All of this is occurring in an environment where long-term expected returns across a wide variety of asset classes have been falling. The GASB changes may add yet another layer of stress, if not complexity, for some public plan sponsors.
This paper reviews the following aspects of the GASB changes: